111. Paulo Savaget: Unlocking potential where others see scarcity

Have you ever come up against rules, procedures, or obstacles that make it incredibly difficult to create change? This week’s guest shares some brilliant examples of organisations that have successfully overcome these challenges.

Sue Stockdale interviews Paolo Savaget, Associate Professor at Oxford University, about his work in transforming unjust systems through workarounds and entrepreneurship. He shares inspiring examples of organisations in Zambia and the Netherlands that have successfully created change despite rules and obstacles. Paolo’s work centres around finding loopholes and roundabouts within existing systems. He explains how piggybacking on other organisations or aspects of the system can help spread ideas and messages more widely.

Paulo Savaget, author of The Four Workarounds, is an associate professor at Oxford University’s Engineering Sciences Department and the Saïd Business School. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar and has a background working as a lecturer, consultant, entrepreneur, and researcher finding innovative solutions for a more inclusive world. As a consultant, he worked on projects for large companies, non-profits, government agencies in Latin America, and the OECD. He currently resides in Oxford, UK.

Connect with Paulo Savaget at Oxford University :  website : LinkedIn

This series is kindly supported by Squadcast by Descript –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations. Find out more at squadcast.fm

Connect with Access to Inspiration: Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn
Sign up for our newsletter | Read our Impact Report

Time Stamps

[00:00:37] Transforming unjust systems through workarounds.
[00:03:58] Potential in overlooked places.
[00:08:05] Hackers and their approach.
[00:11:52] Life-saving medicines in remote areas.
[00:17:12] Loopholes in rules.
[00:19:00] Applying Dutch legislation in Poland.
[00:23:08] Workarounds and empowerment.
[00:26:48] Learning from others and serendipity.

Key Quotes

  • “I started seeing more potentiality in places that people only see scarcity.”
  • “I know very little about computer hackers, but they seem to make change so quickly and resourcefully in very complex computer systems.”
  • “After studying many cases around the world, addressing different kinds of sustainability problems, I identified the four workarounds that are very unconventional.”
  • “Most of my research ideas didn’t come out of time that I spent just thinking. It’s actually from others.”
  • “Complicated solutions are not very good in complex situations – simple solutions are good in complex situations”.

Paulo Savaget Transcription

00:13 Sue Hi, Sue Stockdale here again, and welcome to episode 111 of the Access to Inspiration podcast, where you can be inspired by people who may be unalike you. Well, if you’ve ever tried to create change and come up against rules, procedures or obstacles that make it really difficult, today’s guest Paolo Savaget has got an answer for you. He is Associate Professor at Oxford University and the focus of his work is transforming unjust systems through workarounds and entrepreneurship. Paolo describes some brilliant examples of organisations that have done this and I hope you’ll gain some inspiration from his stories. If you want to read a transcription of this episode as you listen, go on over to our website, accesstoinspiration.org, and there you will find it along with show notes. Welcome to the podcast, Paulo. It’s great to speak to you today.

01:07 Paulo Thank you, Sue, for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

01:11 Sue Now, you’ve got a really interesting background. I see that research, academia, is one avenue of your life. And also, I get a sense of a desire to make a bigger difference in the world and address some of those difficult challenges that the world is facing today. Am I right in making that assumption?

01:29 Paulo That’s a very accurate assumption. I worked for many years as a consultant, and I also worked as a social entrepreneur for some years as well. And it became a full-time academic, but I still have some commitments with organizations worldwide, either as a member of advisory boards or more actively engaging with some action oriented projects as well.

01:53 Sue So tell us how you got into what you’re doing now then. I understand you’re originally from Brazil, is that right?

01:59 Paulo Exactly, yes.

02:00 Sue So what was your career upbringing and when you were a young Paulo, what did you want to be when you grew up?

02:04 Paulo Wow, young Paulo had no idea what older Paulo would turn to be. There was a lot of serendipity in this journey, right, and many things that I really could not foresee. But I started engaging with innovation and sustainability projects relatively early on, and that has changed a lot. My way of thinking of my own career and also what excites me, both from an intellectual perspective, things that I want to study and things that I want to do research on, but also my motivations, what I think I can contribute to. Coming from Brazil, Brazil is a very unequal country and that inequality was very visible from even in my childhood. And also it’s a very environmentally rich country with many challenges related to environmental degradation. And I think that shaped a lot my goals and the ways I think. I worked for quite a few years in Brazil as a consultant and as an entrepreneur, and these were all projects related to sustainability. And one of the good things of working with sustainability is that you are exposed to so many different projects and problem areas. So I worked, for example, with projects with traditional populations in the Amazon, but also with very large companies in Sao Paulo. I was exposed to different settings, different kinds of stakeholders, different problems, different perspectives. And I think that shaped a bit. I do research and I try to contribute to a better world.

03:33 Sue So in that, how did your learning evolve from being involved in these projects to then thinking about how you could add most value to the world with your experience and knowledge and insight?

03:44 Paulo I think the different dimensions to this one is that I want to contribute, but also I got to be excited about things. And I think that excitement was built over time based on these many different experiences I had in different settings. And one of the key learnings I had was that I started seeing more potentiality in places that people only see scarcity. So, for example, working in favelas in Brazil, I saw so much potentiality. They are normally treated as places of absence, absence of public services or security, right? Like things that people normally describe, but there’s so much happening there. There’s so much potential, so many opportunities, brilliant people doing really interesting, innovative stuff. And the same, for example, going, working with traditional populations in the Amazon, people that are normally treated as if they were completely ignored or if they were left aside from urban areas, for example, and so many things I’ve learned from them, from traditional populations in the Amazon, that was the first time that I got a good understanding of resilience, for example, right? We talk a lot about resilience and they taught me about resilience in a way that I had never thought before. Coming from the best universities and that was learning from traditional knowledge and that shaped a lot of my thinking at the time.

Well, before starting the research that ended up was the beginning of where I developed the ideas for this book that I published, I was working on many different projects and. I got frustrated with even my own work as a consultant because I use a lot this idea of systems thinking, systems lenses, systems change. And I realized that regardless of where I was working, whether providing recommendations for projects with traditional populations or a very large chemical company, I offered similar sets of recommendations that were not wrong, but they were very generic, like more coordination, more alignment, more coordination of different stakeholders and so on. And then I started asking myself who doesn’t necessarily start from the same assumptions or who makes systems change in ways that are different from the recommendations that I was providing. And then I thought of computer hackers that I also thought were very ignored. Like I know very little about computer hackers, but they seem to make change so quickly and resourcefully in very complex computer systems. And then I started to study them. And at the time I was interested in these organizations, these individuals that the business world normally ignores, the scrappy groups in the fringes of power structures or that do not have lots of financial resources. but who are so creative in creating different innovations in very ingenious ways that we ignored. And I thought the business world could learn a lot from these organizations, whether hacker groups that mobilize themselves online or small non-profits operating in places that are normally overlooked by business academics and business gurus, book writers, right? That was a key learning that I had as well over this period and that motivated my research on scrappy organizing and on workarounds.

07:04 Sue So it’s sounding to me, Paolo, like you’re shining the torch into sometimes the dark corners of society or a certain sector to be able to understand how, for example, these computer hackers operate. How did you even go about finding hackers to be able to then research or understand what their world was like? Because given that they’re hackers and perhaps not mainstream, it’s probably quite difficult to find them in the first place.

07:29 Paulo Exactly, yes. So when I started with this idea of studying computer hackers, it was more a niche that I wanted to scratch than a proper proposal, like research grant, you know, that I committed to something. I was experimenting with that idea. And the assumption I had at the time was that these hackers weather hacking for malicious purposes or not because most hackers actually do not hack for malicious purposes right they have good purposes or they think they have good purposes, but they make change so quickly with very complex systems computer systems can be so complex and still they make change resourcefully without much prior knowledge of the systems they are hacking without many people, right? Like, it’s not that they mobilize hundreds of people for a hack, and I didn’t know much about them. So I wanted to explore that with the assumption of that they make these changes very quickly. My idea was, can we learn from computer hackers to transpose this knowledge? In other words, to use the hacker approach to hack like education systems or healthcare systems or sanitation systems, right? That was my idea at the time.

When I started working with hackers and I found them in very different ways. So for example, I joined some online communities of hackers. I talked to a lot of cybersecurity experts because many of them are hackers as well, or they understand how to prevent hacking from happening. So it was a good starting point. And many of them are academics, so it was easy for me to connect and then snowball. Like, who do you know that they would bridge me with? Many hackers are not anonymous. Some of them are very vocal in online communities. And there’s a group actually of hackers that think that hacking shouldn’t be anonymous so that it demystifies a little bit hacking. So I also use those communities a lot. But when talking to these hackers, and they would not only point me to other hackers, computer hackers, but they would also say, look at these hackers in the financial sector or look at these hackers in healthcare. They are hacking the healthcare system in Zambia or they’re hacking the financial system in Kenya, right? And then I realized that my assumption was wrong. I was trying to learn from these approaches from computer systems to transpose to other systems. But the reality was that these hackers already recognize hackers in other systems as well. Even though they didn’t necessarily use the terminology, these hackers in healthcare didn’t describe themselves as hackers, they were seen as hackers because they had the hacker approach. And that was a pivot for me. I ended up studying these organizations that were hacking all kinds of systems to address pressing sustainability problems, but most of them would not describe themselves as hackers.

10:16 Sue So as you’re talking, Paolo, there’s a few things I’m picking up from your approach. And please clarify for me if I’m on the right lines here from what I’m hearing. One is your desire to make an impact and to accelerate that impact. The use of experimentation, I’m hearing, is a key part of how you go about things. The ability to challenge assumptions as well. And then finally, this idea of taking knowledge from one area and seeing if it will work somewhere else. Are those some of the things that you would say are key to your approach and your research?

10:44 Paulo Definitely, yes. I have very little regard for disciplinary boundaries. For example, I have a joint appointment between engineering and the business school. I have a background that combines multiple disciplines, and I like crossing these boundaries that I find artificial sometimes as well, right? Learning from different settings, transposing knowledge, engaging with practitioners, engaging with academics, and also looking and valuing overlooked organizations individuals that are doing amazing things but have not been recognized and their approaches we can learn so much from them and using different settings as well.

11:22 Sue I’m loving what you say there, because really that’s the principle of this Access to Inspiration podcast, that we often speak to guests who are not recognised in their sector. They’re not the big celebrity name. However, what they are doing is very impactful and really important for us to learn from and be inspired by. One of the pieces of research that I understand that you undertook, Paolo, was in Zambia and looking at how to get life-saving medicines to remote areas by looking in a completely different sector. Tell me about that.

11:52 Paulo Exactly. Yeah. So one of these hacks or workarounds that I identified was in Zambia, a very small organization that realized that they don’t find life-saving medicines in remote regions, such as diarrhoea treatment. Diarrhoea is one of the biggest killer of children under the age of five. The medicine is over the counter it’s extremely cheap it could be afforded even by populations living extreme poverty if they had the chance of purchasing this medicines from local shops, for example. But you cannot find this medicines. Yeah do you find things like Coca Cola everywhere even in the remotest places on earth. you’re gonna find coca-cola and all the fast moving consumer goods like sugar cooking oil and so on. So the idea they had was why can’t we be back on Coca-Cola distribution chain literally by feeding medicines between bottles in a Coca-Cola crate to take a free ride to this remote regions where you cannot find this medicines so they created a package with diarrhoea treatment that fit between bottles and then let’s take a free ride. As this intervention involved in the realize that the essence was not the space between bottles but the idea that there’s an entire system in place for fast moving consumer goods that move Coca Cola, sugar, cooking oil, or the drinks from big cities. to the remotest places. And they are very resilient. They work really well. So why can’t we use this system to move diarrhoea medicine as well, so that this medicine is more widely available and can save lives?

This intervention was extremely successful. They worked around all sorts of tough obstacles in healthcare by tapping into the success of fast-moving consumer goods. That’s very unconventional, right? We normally think that to address a problem in healthcare, we have to think through and use the means from healthcare and building a healthcare infrastructure. And then I said, OK, that’s very costly. We are a small nonprofit. We can’t really do that. And there’s already another system in place from fast moving consumer goods that we can benefit from. We don’t have to recreate something from scratch. We can simply benefit from and leverage the success from fast moving consumer goods for healthcare. And it was extremely successful. The uptake of the medicine increased abruptly in the intervention districts. And it was a very, very cheap intervention as well compared to other healthcare interventions.

14:19 Sue What a brilliant idea. And I think you’re describing one aspect of what you talk about in your book, I understand. Would that be the piggybacking concept that you’re describing to us here?

14:29 Paulo Exactly. Yes. My book describes after studying many cases around the world, addressing different kinds of sustainability problems, I identified that the four workarounds that are very unconventional, they are imperfection. Yeah yeah resourceful but the address problems here and now and they are great for starting and getting me the outcomes but also allow for building on and for scaling as well. And the full workarounds have different core attributes. The first one is the piggyback. In this case of life that Coca Cola distribution channel is an example of that you don’t have to confront the obstacles in healthcare the things that prevent medicines from reaching remote regions. For infrastructure logistics in the middle funding these things are bottlenecks for a reason right, They are difficult, they are costly the many systemic failures even if there’s a lot of money for tackling these obstacles it’s very likely that there will be some failures as well. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to confront these obstacles, it’s very important that we do, but that shouldn’t suggest or imply that there are no other ways of addressing the problems with more immediate outcomes and that can be scaled and eventually become self-fledged and self-sustaining solutions as well for this problem. And this is a great example. Very cheap, you look at what already exists and you leverage, you tap into the success of others for your benefit. You piggyback on them to address this problem and walk around these tough obstacles. This organization was very small. They didn’t tackle poor infrastructure or poor logistics or intermittent funding, right? They worked around these obstacles by benefiting from what was already there and was very successful.

16:25 Sue If you’re enjoying this episode, then you may want to listen to episode 59, where Jennifer Wilde and Dan McClure explain how to reimagine systems and navigate through complexity that exists when addressing big challenges. You can find it and more than 100 other episodes on a wide range of topics at accesstoinspiration.org. As you’re talking, Paolo, I’m thinking, I think we have used this concept with our podcast. We’ve piggybacked on other organizations or other bits of the system in the podcasting ecosystem and the communications ecosystem to spread our word more widely. So I’m pleased we’re implementing one of your ideas already, one of your aspects.

17:02 Paulo That’s brilliant. Perhaps you’re going to become one of my case studies for my lectures or for a sequel of the book.

17:08 Sue Who knows? So what are the other things? I think they are next best loophole and roundabout. What are those things? I love the words. I want to know more.

17:15 Paulo Well, the second book around this called Loopholes. So roughly speaking, the first one piggybacking was on relationships, crisscrossing systems, right? The second one, Loopholes, is about rules. and primarily about reinterpreting rules, leveraging the ambiguity of rules, what rules say, what rules don’t say, or choosing different sets of rules that are not the most obvious to the context, but they are applicable as well. I cover many examples addressing different kinds of problems. One of the examples that I worked very closely with was a feminist group in the Netherlands that is pro-choice. They think that women should be entitled to get an abortion service if they want to. That was the starting point. And they realized that what prevents women from getting these services is the legislation of the jurisdiction where they reside. So, for example, if a woman today resides in Poland, She cannot get access to an abortion service, right? Whereas in many other countries, in Portugal, for example, here in the UK, they can. So of course, under certain conditions, but it’s allowed. So what this group did, and they are based in the Netherlands. They take a boat from the Netherlands and they sail to places where abortion is illegal so let’s say they go to Poland and then in Poland women want to get an abortion service go on board and they sail to international waters which is not very far from the coastline it’s very doable from an operations perspective. And then in international waters, they are provided a very safe and also legal abortion service, because in international waters, the legislation that applies is the one of the Netherlands, because the boat has a Dutch flag.

So what happens here is that they selected the rules from the Netherlands, the legislation from the Netherlands, to apply for women who reside in Poland. It’s not the most obvious legislation, right? The obvious legislation is the Polish legislation, but it’s constraining them. The workaround is to use this other set of rules creating a context in which these rules will be applied or in that case in international waters. And there are other cases as well that are about reinterpreting rules and leveraging the ambiguity, looking at what it doesn’t say or what it says and using that for your benefit. It’s the most controversial workaround is the loophole, right? Because we’re working around rules. So per definition, rules can be very controversial, different moralities. And every time I talk about them, there might be some discomfort, but also some excitement because it’s very deviant.

19:56 Sue Well, as you’re describing that, Paolo, and that’s a very ingenious workaround that you were giving us an example of there. My mind went to Formula One motorsport, where there is exactly that in terms of the Formula One teams looking for loopholes in the rules to get a competitive advantage because the gains are so marginal in that high performance sport. So that’s another sector where search of loopholes is operating already.

20:20 Paulo Exactly and think of lawyers for example or people in the financial sector that constantly find loopholes. Yeah. But I try to cover cases of human rights violations, cases of lawyers, cases of small non-profits but also large companies or even policy makers using loopholes in emergency situations. Because we can all use loopholes, but most people think of loopholes as like tax evasion, something benefiting the very wealthy. But the reality is that we can all use loopholes if we know how to find them. And that’s why I tried to show it in my book, so that it empowers people that cannot hire the most expensive lawyers to find loopholes, to challenge rules that are unfair. And there are many out there that are unfair.

21:09 Sue I’m really intrigued already to learn more about these different aspects in your book, so I’m sure our listener, as well as myself, can go and find a copy and find out more about them. What I do want to find out from you, Paolo, if we have a listener that wants to create an impact, maybe not have a massive amount of resources, what would be your description for us about the type of mindset or approach one has to have if they want to embark on looking for workarounds?

21:35 Paulo I would say that there’s an attitude and a mindset as well, right? The attitude is very deviant. And when I say deviant, I know that it may have a negative connotation, but I actually don’t mean disobedience. I mean, ways of challenging the status quo, because the status quo can be unfair. It can be undesirable. It leads, well, the name, whichever problem, and you’re going to see some issues in terms of inertia or status quo, right? That we constantly have to challenge to innovate. And the mindset requires embracing complexity and again that may sound too complicated but it’s not complicated it’s actually very simple. I show that with my book that complicated is different from complex. Complicated solutions are not very good in complex situations simple solutions are good in complex situations. And the techniques to embrace complexity and try to see across systems or even within systems by zooming in, zooming out. I described some ways, some techniques that allow us to engage with the situations in which we find ourselves or the problems that we may want to tackle and find possibilities of intervening that are very accessible to us, that don’t necessarily require a lot of resources, a lot of power for example and that can produce more immediate outcomes as well and I would say that based on this research I studied so many cases right and there are four kinds of workarounds with very cool attributes and once you understand the attributes it becomes much easier to find this possibility to act systemically in very empowering ways because you don’t feel disenfranchised if you can’t tackle a complex problem that so many tough obstacles that many of us become disenfranchised and say, How can I possibly tackle climate change? It’s so big. Not even the United Nations can fully tackle this, but it shouldn’t prevent us from acting. And we need this distributed action, right? Many people doing a bunch of stuff. That’s how these problems will be potentially solved. Not a single action from a single organization. And workarounds are very empowering because we can all come up with them and they are entry points that allow us to scale.

23:52 Sue It sounds brilliant. It sounds like it’s an easy entry point, as you say, to help people to make impact and to move things forward. How do you measure your success, Paulo?

24:01 Paulo Wow, my success? I don’t think I measure it that much, to be honest, because I constantly reframe and rethink what I’ve been doing. And I think that that’s also part of the hack or the workaround mindset. If you start from metrics, you get constrained to what you know yesterday. But if you allow yourself to constantly experiment and think retroactively, constantly reflecting on your actions. For example if you if you act on something that is not thinking how did that make me feel that I like, dislike what I learned, what did I know yesterday that I improve that knowledge today or perhaps what did I know yesterday that now I realise that I was wrong. There are many ways of challenging your knowledge once you start reflecting on your previous actions, whereas if you start with metrics, I think it can be very constraining. You don’t necessarily engage in these reflections or you think that you know everything from the outset, when in reality, when you expose yourself, especially in complex situations, you don’t. It’s better to know that you don’t know than to pretend that you know everything from the outset. I deliberately avoid them or I decide my metrics after I have already engaged with some problems and I see what is more desirable or not.

25:21 Sue That sounds like a very sensible approach Paolo. And finally, given that we are the Access to Inspiration podcast, where do you get your inspiration for, for continuing your research and your work?

25:33 Paulo I get inspiration from so many places. I have brilliant colleagues in academia who constantly inspire me with their ideas, with the research they conduct, but also I get so much from practitioners. And that’s one of the reasons why I dedicate time to talking to practitioners, to being part of advisory boards and working more actively on action research as well. Because not only I can see more directly the impact of the work, but also I learn from them. I benefit so much from them. Most of my research ideas didn’t come out of time that I spent just thinking. It’s actually from others. I take a lot from others and I try to acknowledge the contributions from so many people that shape the way I think and the research I do. This research that was published in the book came from knowledge from so many organisations the scrappy organisations that I met worldwide without them it’s nothing that I could have learned from books or from other papers I had to go to the field and engage with them and learn from the wisdom and from the flexible ways of the approach problems. So yeah, I tried to learn from many, and there’s a lot of serendipity involved as well. Things that I couldn’t know, but because you expose yourself to the new, like once you meet someone you don’t know, or you learn about a topic that you didn’t necessarily know much, that opens up a realm of possibilities for learning and for collaborating, for crisscrossing knowledge from different views.

27:17 Sue I love that it really summarises what we’ve been talking about here, Paolo, expose yourself to the new and that outward looking, outward focus is really where learning happens and where ideas come from and serendipity as well comes into that mix.

Paulo Exactly.

It’s been lovely to talk to you today and I could spend many more minutes discussing this idea because it’s so intriguing in terms of the work that you’re doing. However, if people do want to follow up with you and find out more about the book and the work that you do, how might they do that, Paolo?

27:47 Paulo I’m on many social media, not necessarily super active with all of them. If you Google my name and find the Oxford website, my emails will be there. So also very accessible via emails. And as I said, I’m very interested in engaging with broader audiences and with practitioners. Wonderful. Please do reach out.

28:09 Sue And your book’s called The Four Workarounds, is that right?

28:12 Paulo The Four Workarounds, yes. And it’s about taking its strategies from the world’s scrappiest organizations for tackling complex problems.

28:21 Sue Wonderful. Well, we’ll make sure we put a link to that as well in the show notes, Paolo. It’s been fantastic to speak to you today and you’ve opened up my eyes and my thinking about what’s possible there and to get outward and to learn some new things. So thank you so much for your time today.

28:35 Paulo Thank you very much Sue. This was a joy. Wonderful.

28:40 Sue Well, thanks to Paolo Savaget for providing us with some really useful examples of workarounds. I’m keen now to have a read of his book and to learn about the other aspects of this subject. You can keep connected with us on all the social media platforms. Just search for Access to Inspiration. Next week, I’ll be talking to Bettina Ovgaard about why she finds the Arctic and Greenland in particular so appealing as a place to live, work and travel around. Hope you can join us then.


Producer – Sue Stockdale
Sound Editor – Matias de Ezcurra